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A Blended Family Holiday (Or How I Let Go Of My Expectations)

12/16/2011 02:09 pm 14:09:36 | Updated Feb 15, 2012

The cheer of the holiday season -- the music, the food, the decorations -- comes with a lot of stress, especially if you're hosting your friends or extended family. But if you're like me, part of a blended family with step kids, exes and the rest? Forget it. The stress can feel almost crippling at times. Family holiday traditions run deep, and feelings are easily hurt this time of year. Especially mine, as I learned.

I love to go all out for the holidays -- cooking, decorating, shopping for presents. Christmas has always been a big deal for my family, so I was especially excited last year to celebrate my first as a stepmother. My husband and his daughters are Jewish and my family is Catholic, so we decided to celebrate both holidays together at our house, which I hoped would be a slam dunk for the girls -- two sets of presents and lots of great holiday food! I assumed they'd be as excited as I was -- what's not to like? I wanted to honor both of our traditions, so I consulted my husband on his family's Hanukkah rituals and incorporated my own Christmas customs that meant so much to me growing up -- all to create a memorable holiday celebration for my stepdaughters.

I went to work preparing our Hanukkah/Christmas dinner. I was determined to make the best latkes ever, not to mention my favorite Christmas cookies using my grandmother's old recipes. I wanted everything to be special not only for the girls, but for my in-laws and my own relatives. I hung the personalized stockings my mother had sewn for my stepdaughters on the mantle and decorated the tree with ornaments from my childhood. I placed the candles on the menorah and arranged my sister-in-law's handmade dreidels as the centerpiece for our dining room table. The house looked beautiful. I could not have been more pleased. A Judeo-Christian masterpiece, or at least that's what I thought.

But my excitement quickly faded as dinner with our blended family got underway. My stepdaughters half-heartedly picked at their food, anxious to watch TV, text their friends, or retreat to their laptops. They hadn't even noticed the decorations. "These latkes taste funny to me," said the younger one. "Not like my Mom's." I looked down at my plate, remembering my struggle just to make sure they held together when I'd cooked them -- forget about taste. "Would you like some applesauce with your latkes?" I asked, passing the bowl to my mother-in-law and forcing a smile, hoping she wouldn't notice. Then my older stepdaughter put down her fork and asked, "Is it okay if I go now? I promised to meet Rachel for a movie in like half an hour." She got up from the table without waiting for an answer to search for her phone. My Mom and brother looked at me with confused expressions, wondering why she'd leave a holiday dinner (which for my family could last hours with all the turkey, wine and coffee to be consumed). We hadn't even served dessert.

The presents I'd spent so much time and energy choosing and wrapping were a bust, too. "I think these earrings are broken," said my older stepdaughter, handing me a box with a single stud holding a beautiful peacock feather, while next to it the feather of its twin was torn in half. How had I not noticed it was damaged? "I don't think this fits me," said the younger one, trying on a jacket I gave her and attempting to pull the sleeves down over her fingers. "No, that's the style!" I insisted, trying to revive my waning enthusiasm and cuffing the sleeves instead. "There...see?" She nodded but I knew she wouldn't wear it. I wanted to cry. The evening felt like a failure. Why couldn't anything go as planned? I wanted to create a special holiday celebration for everyone to enjoy together. But now the girls were just anxious for the evening to end. What had I done wrong?

My stepdaughters later told me about the Hanukkah celebration at their mother's house which included their friends, and how much fun they had eating pasta and watching movies together. At first, it really bothered me because I'd gone to so much trouble for our dinner. I could have just served pizza and called it a night.

But I realized that I was expecting them to like my version of how the holiday should be, instead of creating a new one that better suited their idea of a good time.

And now, it's that time of year again. I'm faced with the possibility of yet another season of disappointment. Should I hold back my holiday enthusiasm this year so I won't be so hurt?

The conclusion I've come to is -- no.

Last year, I wanted to prove myself as a stepmother, that I could create a memorable family experience. I wanted everything to work out as I envisioned, and I wanted the girls to have an instant positive reaction to all of my efforts. But -- because of my high expectations -- of course the evening didn't go as planned.

As a new blended family, I realize we make our own traditions up as we go along. Now I know that the girls see the holidays as a chance to be with friends and forget about school, not as a big interfaith family celebration. They are entitled to their own feelings, and to be honest -- the holidays aren't a big deal to them. They never have been. And that's ok. When I let go of my expectations, all of us have a much better experience.

This year, I have the same holiday enthusiasm. I still love the traditions I grew up with. But the difference is, I'm not going to try to impress anyone, or try to gain approval about my still-new place in the family, or try to make anyone else feel as excited as I do. There's enough stress in the season without trying to put on some kind of performance. So instead, I'm doing the things I enjoy because I enjoy doing them. And this means another Hanukkah/Christmas dinner -- only this time the girls will invite their friends over and I'll try a new latke recipe. We'll probably watch some movies, too.